Standing Up for the French Revolution

The ancien regime personified: An elderly French peasant carrying a bishop and nobleman

I’ve always found it interesting that the United States and France both celebrate their independence days, at least in a sense, in July, just nine days apart from each other. Of course, the American and French Revolutions were somewhat different in character. For America it was more a war of national liberation against a what had become an imperial master, determined to keep its colonies subservient (the crux of Tom Paine’s argument in Common Sense), though there were elements of civil war and social revolution as well. France’s revolution, on the contrary, began as a strictly internal affair, an upheaval against a badly outmoded form of government and social system.

In all likelihood, one revolution might not have happened without the other and neither might have occurred without war and debt. Britain began putting the squeeze on her American colonies after running up massive debts in the global “Seven Years War” with France, known as the “French and Indian War” in North America (Churchill referred to it as the [real] first world war). This was the proximate cause of the antagonisms that led to American Revolution. The American Revolution in turn had two important effects on ancien regime France. First, it’s ideals of liberty, republicanism and the abolition of hereditary political power became hot topics in France, even among the aristocracy. This was reflected in the popularity of Ben Franklin, the American ambassador, who played the role of freedom-loving, rustic, noble semi-savage to the hilt. Second, the French government borrowed millions to help its new ally defeat France’s traditional enemy, Great Britain. Looming bankruptcy forced Louis XVI to call for an Estates General, the closest thing France had to a representative body, for the first time since 1614. The French Revolution began on June 20, 1789, when the Third Estate, representing everybody other than the nobility and clergy, refused an order to disband and declared itself a “National Assembly.” The storming of the Bastille, the symbol of old regime oppression, occurred on July 14 and became the day the French chose to commemorate the revolution.

One of the best short books I’ve read on the French Revolution is Mark Steel’s, Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution. Steel is a British stand-up comedian but also a political activist and long-time member of the UK Socialist Workers Party. True to form Steel frequently injects humor into the book while at the same time maintaining a spirited defense of the achievements of the revolution.

Brief (293 pages, including endnotes, bibliography and index) compared to massive tomes like Simon Schama’s Citizens, Steel still does a remarkable job of putting the French Revolution into historical context, exploring the main personalities and events. Steel also discusses the impact of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment and even the English Civil War (where another king lost his head) as important influences on Western thought that helped to set the stage for the French Revolution.

He also takes the issue of the revolution’s excesses head on. Although it still looks horrific to 21st century eyes, Steel reminds us that the guillotine, invented by the physician of the same name, was designed to make executions quicker and less painful. Under the old regime arsonists and religious heretics were burned at the stake (though sometimes discreetly strangled beforehand), brigands and murderers were “broken on the wheel” (look it up if you want the gory details), counterfeiters were boiled alive and traitors, parricides and regicides dismembered.

Neither does Steele excuse the period of paranoia and mass executions known to history as “the Terror” but he does try to give it some perspective:

[Around] 2,650 death sentences were passed in Paris during the eighteen months of the Terror- gruesome, but not in the first division of historical blood-letting, even for the French. In the attack on the Paris Commune of 1871 [a working-class uprising that occurred in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War], an estimated 25,000 were killed. In one day of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a riot against the Protestant minority in France in the sixteenth century, there were more killed than in a year of the terror.

Steele echoes the sentiments of an earlier American humorist and writer, Mark Twain who observed in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that there were “Two Reigns of Terror,” one under the revolutionary government that lasted “mere months” and the other, under the old regime, which had lasted for “a thousand years.

Though they each had their drawbacks, failures, hypocrisies, reactionaries and led to new socio-economic contradictions, both the American and French Revolutions, sometimes referred to as the “bourgeois revolutions,” still helped to displace an earlier epoch based on feudalism, nobility, the church and the idea of a god given social hierarchy that was not to be disturbed. As Steel observes early in his book:

The row at the heart of the [French] Revolution is the same one that drives Alexander Dumas’ story, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. In the aftermath of the revolution, sailor Edmond Dantes is promoted to captain and is about to marry the beautiful Mercedes but is betrayed by a friend, whose false evidence consigns him to years in a dungeon. When Dantes asks why his friend is doing this, the friend says, “ Because you are not meant to have more than me. I am a noble and you are the son of a clerk.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City